Is it a cold or an allergy?


Commentary by Chintan Amin


Springtime generally signals the beginning of allergy season. During this time of year, people with nasal congestion often wonder whether their symptoms are caused by allergies or the common cold. Because the symptoms of allergies and colds are similar, it’s often difficult to tell which condition is the culprit – especially in early spring when seasonal allergies are just starting to flare up.

It’s important to understand the differences between colds and allergies. Colds can be caused by many different viruses, and the germs are contagious. Cold sufferers may experience a variety of symptoms, including stuffy nose, sore throat and cough. In many cases, our immune system fights off a cold within several days, but this can be affected by other health conditions you may have.

Allergies are not caused by viruses. They are caused by an immune system response to an allergen, such as pollen or dust. The body responds to the allergen by releasing a chemical, histamine, which can cause a runny nose, cough, sneezing and swollen nasal passages. Also, allergy sufferers commonly complain of itchy, watery eyes, which is generally not a cold symptom. Allergies are not contagious.

To tell whether your symptoms are related to a cold or allergies, consider these factors. Colds typically last from three to 14 days, while allergy symptoms can continue for days or months, depending on how long you are exposed to the allergen. While some allergies are seasonal, an allergic reaction causing nasal congestion or other symptoms can happen at any time of the year, as long as the allergen is present. On the other hand, many colds occur during winter. Also, with a cold, symptoms take a few days to develop after infection with the virus, but with allergies, symptoms can begin right after exposure to the allergen.

If you are uncertain whether you have a cold or allergies, and your symptoms persist for more than 14 days, schedule an appointment with your doctor (sooner, if symptoms worsen or you have other health conditions). There are many remedies for treating allergies, including nasal steroids to reduce swelling, and allergy shots.


Chintan Amin, MD, specializes in internal medicine. He is a guest columnist at IU Health Physicians Internal Medicine – North, 11725 Illinois St., Suite 325, in Carmel. He can be reached at 688-5800.

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